At Banneker High School, the District of Columbia's new model academic school, students, teachers and adminstrators have learned to take the good with the bad.
The good news is that the first 297 students enrolled there this fall are a high-spirited group intent on soaking up as much knowledge as they can each day. Some arrive for classes an hour early in the morning to keep up with their work and their school day never ends at 3 p.m., as it does for most other city students.
After school, most Banneker students take such "minicourses" as poetry writing, slimnastics, journalism or bicycle maintenance. All of them volunteer one day a week after school to tutor younger school children or to work at Howard University's hospital and library. Some of the students go for extra academic help to Howard's Center for Academic Reinforcement twice a week.
The bad news is that the school, created earlier this year by the D.C. School Board after lengthy debate, is at the bottom of the list when it comes to resources.
The Banneker laboratories are not equipped for high school biology, chemistry or physics classes, even though Banneker students are required to pass three science courses in order to graduate. Its library, unlike those at other high schools, has one librarian instead of two, and is filled with junior high books. And unlike pupils at other schools, typing students use manual, not electric, typewriters.
Despite Banneker's shortcomings, numerous students say they are happy they left other city schools to enroll there. Sophomore Michele Hawthorne said she likes it because it is "more competitive" than the junior high she attended last year, where she said teachers would sometimes "stay on a lesson two weeks because of the slower students when they really could have stayed on it only a week or four days. This was very frustrating for me."
Hawthorne said Banneker students are required to read the newspaper every day, write monthly book reports, take weekly tests in every subject, and complete term papers and class projects.
The project for Spanish I this semester, for example, is to visit a Latino community and interview people who live there. Because research and reference materials are lacking in the school library, acting Principal Cecile Middleton said she has made special arrangements with the Library of Congress for her students to work there.
Even if materials are in short supply, students and staff said school spirit is plentiful. "The teachers don't deal a lot with discipline in this school because nobody ever gets out of hand," said freshman Lori Huff. "It's like a big family. It's very different from other schools. Nobody fights."
"The difference between this school and others is the attitude of the students," said mathematics teacher Doris DeBoe. "Kids are here because they want to be."
"Students by and large are in the classroom every day. There's no such thing as five, six absences," said another mathematics teacher, Ethel Henderson, adding her wish that supplies in her classroom would match the ability of her students.
In most city high schools, a 60 percent score is a passing grade. At the academic high school the minimum passing grade is 70.
Banneker students must take more math, science, social studies and language courses than other D.C. high school students. There is homework every night in all classes.
These are the standards and procedures that the students and the staff of Banneker say put the word "model" in their school's name. But the lack of facilities and some supplies has left Middleton and her teachers disappointed.
"A lot of intelligent people have gone through school without a lot of fancy material and still have learned a great deal," she said. "But the fact of the matter is, this school has not gotten what it should have gotten."
She said the school has had to depend on donations of books from the public to fill its library with high school-level books and texts, such as "Aeneid," "War and Peace" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
There are only 9th and 10th grades at the school this year. The 11th and 12th grades will be added next year and enrollment is expected to total about 500. To qualify for admittance to Banneker, students must be able to read at their grade level or above and rank in the top 18 percent of their class. Their junior high school principals and teachers have to recommend them, and they must be approved by a screening panel of teachers and administrators.
Most of the students interviewed yesterday said they had received grades on their first advisory report cards that were far lower than they were used to getting. About 40 students were doing so poorly that their mid-semester report cards were withheld from them until they can get remedial help.
Middleton said teachers come to school an hour early every morning and are asked to stay after school every day to help students who are falling behind.